For the majority of their 19-year existence, Hollywood rockers Fireball Ministry have never quite fit in. When guitarists James A. Rota II and Emily Burton and drummer John Oreshneck first started playing classic hard rock in the late ’90s, nu-metal was exploding. An ill-timed move from their hometown of Cincinnati to New York City saw them slugging it out in a scene that was birthing indie-rock bands such as The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Even when Fireball Ministry's profile was at its highest in the mid-2000s, after the band relocated to Hollywood, the meat-and-potatoes, Black Sabbath– and Thin Lizzy–inspired rock of 2005's aptly titled Their Rock Is Not Our Rock was at odds with mainstream rock radio exemplified by Nickelback, the metalcore acts rising to the top of the heavy music scene, and even tourmates such as party-rocker Andrew W.K., Finnish goth-rockers HIM and thrash-metal icons Megadeth.
“We've always joked that every time we put out a record, it was when nobody cared about this kind of music,” Rota says during a conversation over drinks at Angel City Brewery in downtown L.A., alongside Burton. “We always talk about what genres have lived, [been] born and died during our 19 years. It's pretty amazing.”
Fireball Ministry's newest record, Remember the Story, was released earlier this month. The band's first new album in seven years doesn't find them straying from the path they trod on their four previous records. Rota's hard-rock snarling vocals and the guitar duo's hard-driving riffs continue to propel fist-pumping, head-banging rock anthems that would have fit snugly alongside Foghat had the band existed 25 years earlier. The album picks up where the band's self-titled 2010 album left off in delivering its mission statement of pure rock & roll.
“It hasn't felt like seven years since the last record,” says Burton. “It was just a slow burn. It's not like we'd been completely inactive.”
The seven years between records saw Rota and Burton explore successful projects away from Fireball Ministry. Burton started and continues to operate Dutch Hollow General, a jewelry company centered around rock and occult iconography. Rota produced and worked alongside Dave Grohl on the 2013 documentary Sound City and the subsequent HBO series Sonic Highways.
While there was a lengthy break between recorded full-length albums and members had other outside interests, Fireball Ministry never went completely silent. The group continued to contribute one-off songs to compilation records and made sporadic appearances on festivals such as the Motörhead-themed Motörboat cruise, where in 2014 they first performed with stoner-rock workhorse Scott Reeder (ex-Kyuss, ex–The Obsessed) on bass. The chemistry that was immediately evident with Reeder in the mix was a big part of what got the band back into the studio to record another album.
“We always had a Spinal Tap situation on bass,” Rota says. “No disrespect to every bass player in the world … but he's the best bass player in the world! We're just lucky to have him in the band, and he's just a great person also. Not to be too gushy, [but] it's shocking he doesn't play on everybody's record to me.”
Rota's experience working on Sound City and Sonic Highways also reinforced his belief in not reinventing the wheel with Fireball Ministry's sound.
“Really it was a bunch of drunks that liked rock & roll.” -James Rota on the late '90s stoner-rock scene
“Everyone involved with that movie had the same approach to recording and producing music,” Rota says. “Get great performances in the studio and ease up on the computers; try to make good sounds come out of you, and not the machines. We're not just trying to sound like the loudest band in the world. We're trying to just make a record sound good … though I think I felt that way before the movie.”
Most of our conversation centers around Fireball Ministry's current approach to making rock music, but Rota also reminisces about the band's early days in Ohio, when he used the then-burgeoning internet to connect with other rock purists elsewhere around the country. He shares an anecdote about how the band's first release was a split EP with SoCal desert rockers Fatso Jetson, which came about after he connected with that band's drummer, Tony Tornay, in an AOL chat room.
“It was an awesome network back then through chat rooms and stoner-rock message boards,” says Rota. “Stonerrock.com, Jadd Shickler [MeteorCity Records], Lee Dorrian [Rise Above Records], Frank Kozik [Man's Ruin Records] and the Bong Load Records guys were super into this stuff. But it wasn't an organized thing. It comes off in hindsight like it was a scene, but really it was a bunch of drunks that liked rock & roll.”